Culinary Tourism: My First Michelin
I have always wanted to dine at a Michelin star restaurant. I have always wanted to dine at a Michelin star restaurant, not because I want to be able to appreciate fine cuisine as it was meant to be served, but because I’ve always wanted to brag about dining at one. Last year, during a spur of the moment Euro-trip, Kokotxa finally gave me this opportunity. Let’s just say I brag a lot more now than I did last summer.
San Sebastián, or Donostia, as it is known to locals, was an accidental visit for our group of six. We mistook it for a luxury beach resort town, and found it to be anything but. Sure, there was a beach alright, but there was no resort on this side of the border. To get to the nearest resort, we would have to cross into Napoleon’s Biarritz, in south-west France. So we said fuck it and went with the flow.
After much squabbling and whining, I realized that San Sebastián finds itself in a sticky situation when it comes to its juxtaposed culinary offerings. Casual and cheap pintxos (or as us ‘normal’ folks call them, tapas) bars with overflowing seafood on bread stabbed with toothpicks represent the majority of the eateries. Seventeen sought-after Michelin experiences, however, bring oodles of travelers to this Basque Country surfers’ paradise. Dani López’s one-Michelin Kokotxa, in the Old Town district, makes use of the latter appeal. And honey, I’m sold!
Donostia is the purported Mecca of Michelin starred restaurants in Europe. Kyoto is the only other city in the world with more stars per square meter. That’s big shit: we’re talking ones, twos, and of course, threes – the whole shebang. I knew this going in. In fact, it was the primary reason I wanted to visit.
Necking the Bay of Biscay, this barely-Spanish city brings with it some of the freshest seafood available to man. We’re talking mounds and mounds of salmon, ginormous squid tentacles, caviar for daayyss and volcanic oysters like you’ve never seen before. But just because it boasts a vast culinary arsenal does not mean that it lends itself to travelers’ conveniences when it comes to Michelin dining. It certainly didn’t lend to mine.
Overbooked and open only when they feel like it, the seventeen Michelins inhabiting the coastal town frown at reservations attempted at a moment’s notice. Reservations for large parties, too, are often completely disregarded. Arzak, one among the trio of three Michelin star restaurants here, is a prime example of a hard to get gal. From the minute I got to San Sebastián, locals raved about the classic Basque kitchen, one of the best ranked restaurants in the world. “You must try Arzak!” they sang. “Arzak will change your life!” Unfortunately, I am not a very good planner and was unable to score a table at the legendary Arzak.
“Sorry, not open on weekends!” “Sorry, not open on weekdays!” “Sorry, not open for dinner!” “Sorry, not open for lunch!” “Sorry, no vacancy!” “Sorry…” Sorry, sorry, sorry. Some even scoffed at our audacity to not call in two months ago. One by one we crossed each Michelin off our list.
You can imagine that it must have come as an unbelievable and extremely welcome surprise that our party of six people was able to secure spots at Kokotxa after providing only a day’s notice. A last-minute cancellation worked in our favor and we were giddy for a full 24-hours prior to our lunch slot. We were supposed to leave town the next day, and wanted to cap off our subpar San Sebastián experience with the meal of our lifetimes.
Unbeknownst to them, we had conflicting expectations. I expected foie gras and gels from exotic fruits while my fellow diners expected something more standard, like steak. Also unbeknownst to them, we had no idea what Kokotxa was about. We had no idea who Dani López was. We had no idea what we were going to be served, and at what cost. We went in tabula rasa, and came out seasoned food critics, or at least it seemed. Let’s just say we all left happy.
Now I have been told more than just a few times that I have unreasonable expectations from restaurants. I guess to a certain extent I’m aware of this unreasonableness, and choose not to do anything about it. As much as I love telling restaurateurs and chefs to step up their game, Kokotxa really dragged me off my cloud and set its own expectations of me. Daunting? You betcha.
I always imagined that all Michelin restaurants would look disturbingly similar, with high ceilings, French drapes, and long, elegant tables laden with sequenced white tablecloth. Little did I know that appearance and décor rarely factor into the awarding of the actual star. Kokotxa was neither an upscale restaurant, or a French bakery, but a simple union of both.
Kokotxa resides on a slightly sloped street with three-to-four story, yellow residential buildings on either side. You can hear the ocean, and the crisp yellow exteriors contrasting with the black wrought-iron terraces are an architect’s delight. The restaurant is almost unmarked on the outside, so it is easy to miss. We walked past it two times before realizing that a hole in the wall was what we were supposed to be looking for.
The first word that comes to mind when describing Kokotxa’s interior has to be ‘quaint’. It is well lit, and with the heating set to a cool 23 degrees celsius or so, it is a comfortable little hangout spot. White tablecloths, not more than ten tables of assorted shapes by windows overlooking the docks and the sea, a keen eye for simple ornaments and overall decor, all go into creating a homely feel that doesn’t seem forced. Local flowers in tiny pots on tables change as the seasons do, reflecting the Michelin approach – to source locally. This is the sort of restaurant – minus the fuss – that I’d want to open one day. A Michelin starred fried chicken dispensary has a nice ring to it.
Two of our six were late to the party, shuffling in about twenty minutes after we had already been seated. The rest of us were unconcerned in the meantime. This perpetual lateness has become, much like a force of nature, inescapable. We sauntered over the menu and made unfunny comments while commenting on other diners’ meals in Urdu. Yes, we are always this polite and respectful.
The scene in front of us was much like you would imagine a Michelin restaurant to be. People mostly took pictures on their smartphones and ga-ga-ed over each new course. Some sat in solitude, digesting with their eyes before their stomachs. I liked such people, ones who let their food get cold for the sake of a lingering memory. I too, prepared myself to let my food get cold.
When our party was complete, we finally dove into the menu.
Virgins to the Michelin Experience, we were of the impression that we would mix and match our orders, choosing from the items listed in the ‘market’ menu and the ‘tasting’ menu. And as we began to question our ever present but mostly silent servers about items from both menus, we were politely informed that the ‘tasting’ menu would only be served if everyone on the table ordered it.
We were also offered the ‘La Carte’ menu, something we did not know existed at such places. One diner in our party did not eat red meat, so we chose to go for this menu to make things easy. I was initially not amused, as I had wanted the 7-course tasting menu. Interestingly enough, some of the things that we dined on were not on the menu, but I was grateful to have them appear on our table regardless.
We were started off with soup sticks instead of a bread basket, something that was a welcome surprise to a group that had been binging on Parisian bread for a week prior to our entry in Spain. In this time we admired the restaurant, and also San Sebastián, through the windows.
After the soup sticks of a variety that I cannot quite recall, we were brought gazpacho, a classic Spanish soup that is served cold. The tomato gazpacho, garnished with feta, served in a concave shot glass, with a rather interesting side: baby prawns on brioche. The baby prawns were cute little creatures. They had tiny pink whiskers and shiny black, dead eyes. They were picturesque, so I took pictures. A perfect pairing, the fully-shelled and headed baby prawns offered a crunch to go with the sweet and airy brioche. Even better, the cold gazpacho on a warm day to stack onto this savoriness made my head nearly explode. This is what I was here for. And this was just an appetizer to the appetizer.
We had each ordered a single appetizer to suit our palettes, with one small difference: I had ordered two. Ordinarily the restaurant wouldn’t have allowed for this to happen, but I managed to convince someone else in my party to forgo their own order to ensure I got to try the foie gras dices, with dried fruits, pineapple and apricot gel. I went ahead and ordered the “Carabinero” (large red prawn) with beetroot rice and seaweed. Others ordered the conservative Lobster in a smoked “Marmitako” and the Kimchi – Crusty – Crab. I shamelessly tried all of them. Yes, I know I can be an asshole when it comes to food. Worth it!
The foie gras was gamey, mushy, and contrasted extremely well with the apricot gel in particular. I am a fan of all things duck, and the Michelin finesse certainly seemed to do the trick. It was served with elongated toasted bread, and I spread it like butter to make my own toasties. Three, four, or maybe even five toasties later, I reminded myself that I still had to sample everyone else’s appetizers before turning to mine, so I moved on. All that being said, it was perhaps the weakest appetizer of the four that we had ordered. But I guess I’m not really comparing apples to oranges here.
The carabinero was much larger than I had expected. Bright red and on a blood red bed of rice, it tasted of the ocean and not unlike a lobster. Propped up on a black tray of sorts, the prawn itself was slightly sweet and had a robust texture. The rice was a short grain variety cooked with beetroot, leading to a milky contrast and deep, lasting flavor. I took my time eating it, and honestly had trouble identifying any seaweed element to the appetizer. Still, it was gorgeous, both in appearance and in taste. Of all the appetizers we ate, I would order this one again in a heartbeat.
The lobster was also a visual treat. It was served in a glass dome with smoke in it, after which a salty fish stew (marmitako) was poured into the bowl. This led the the lobster appearing as a centrally placed, white island, in a brownish liquid ocean. It was refreshingly cold, delicate, and overall just how a lobster should be. Being encased in smoke had really helped its cause, and the classic spanish fish stew lapped at its exterior to provide a salty finish to an already outstanding starter.
The Kimchi Crab was served in a slate colored bowl, and this did wonders for presentation. Encrusted in a batter, the soft-shell crab stood upright on the plate, legs on display. It was surrounded by a creamy sauce of sorts (think aioli), and the kimchi marination within the deep fried crust was phenomenal. I found this to be a creative, and of course delicious approach on a decapod served at every corner restaurant these days.
Once we (mostly I) were finished licking our plates clean, the main course arrived (at the same time of course). We busied ourselves with small talk as it was served, lest we appear too anxious to begin. I think we pulled it off. Barely.
The women in our party went for fish. I did not try the fish, neither was I there to review it. On the menu was a marinated shade-fish with sour cream, pickles, and perse caviar, a fish of the day with avocado, daikon and lime, a monkfish with red cabbage, peanuts in a bones emulsion, a turbot with gazpachuelo, fresh green beans and chinese mushrooms, and finally, kokotxas in a traditional Basque pil pil.
I will not do a deep dive into the fish offerings. However, I will give you the gist of it:
The shade-fish, also known as the croaker or the jewfish is very similar to the silvery sea bass. This means the meat comes off in large flakes, and is an ideal candidate to grill, bake, fry, or even serve sashimi style. Its versatility makes it a common staple in European and even Asian cuisine.
Monkfish is a scary ass motherfucker, and you’d agree with me if you’ve ever seen it before it is sliced. Dark colors and a gnarly, aggressive, and frankly ugly face make you think twice about ordering it. This fish is now sought after, and fetches a price similar to a lobster on a good day. It also tastes surprisingly like a lobster, with rigid blocks of flesh melting upon contact with the tongue.
Turbot is a flatfish, much like Dory from Finding Nemo but with a mud-like color. It is often found in the Baltic sea, and falls under the same general category as flounders and Dover soles. The shiny skin and bright white meat is a visual treat as well, so it comes as no surprise that it is featured at various fine dining establishments across the world. In this case it was served with gazpachuelo, which is basically a combination of fish stock and a blend of mayonnaise, garlic, egg yolk and olive oil.
Now that we’re done with the fish, I can mention another specialty that we did not order. Ze pork.
Being halal guys, we did not fuck with the Iberian pork shoulder, with smoked pear, and salted hazelnut crumble, even though it came highly recommended. A point to note here: Iberian pork is made from the Black Iberian pig, and is known for its marbelization and diet. The pig is fed only acorns and has a natural propensity to fatten up quite easily. This results in a distinct taste (I’m told), and this is exactly what we missed out on.
Two members of our party went for the roasted piece of ox filet, with crunchy ashes and red pepper juice. It was perhaps the most visually striking item we had seen all night. Having never really had an ox steak before, we were all blown away by the fine layer of ash that coated it. And while it looked burnt from the outside, the lap pool of red pepper juice that it sat in mirrored the medium rare meat sliced into two equal pieces. With a few decorative yet edible garnishes on the spotless plate around it, the entree needed nothing more to make it pop. With lean, almost fat-less meat, but with more moisture than beef, ox comes off as extremely tender. The texture is smoother than beef as well. We found the ox fillet to be sublime, and it hit all the right notes with flavors that varied enough from traditional beef for it to be a unique proposition for diners. The ‘crunchy’ ashes, however, were not really crunchy. 3 out of the 6 diners would recommend this option each time.
I chose the Pigeon from Bresse, with corn French toast and black sesame, risking safe bet options for a potentially unforgettable experience. I don’t really know why I did this, but I think it’s most likely that I was trying to impress the cute server by placing a unique order relative to the rest of the table’s. I was not let down. Not only did I get a genuine smile, but I found the unforgettable dining experience I was looking for. Who knew that having an inherently French entree at a Basque Michelin restaurant could be this fucking dope. Bresse, near Lyon, is famous for poultry, and numerous Michelin restaurants serve Bresse pigeon as an integral part of their offerings. For all those who are curious, this entree did not taste like chicken. At all. In fact, it was very gamey, almost liver-like, with dark meat and black sesame concentrate to supplement it. I could not get into the habit of ordering this at every place that offers it but I had to be adventurous and it paid off. Pigeon is certainly not for picky eaters.
Wholly satisfied with the extravagant and extensive meal that we had thus far, we dared to cap it off with some dessert. Some of you who know me will recall that I don’t really care for dessert, and that I would much rather fill up on savory foods instead. But it would have been a shame if I had not tested the waters here. Also, for review purposes, it was essential to slot in my non-existent sweet tooth. Oh, the things I do for you guys!
We did not try the banana, with idiazabal cheese, yogurt, and curd ice cream. We passed on the chestnut with dark chocolate and brown butter. We didn’t even think of the chocolate-apricot with seasonal fruits and smoked whiskey, as intoxicatingly good as it did sound. Instead, we went for one risky option, and one fallback. Coming in first was the crunchi licorice layer with mango, and a chocolate crumble (risky). Not far behind at all was the homemade brioche French toast with carrot, ginger, and cardamom ice cream (safe AF).
The Crunchi Licorice layer with the chocolate crumble turned out far better than we could have anticipated. Bitter and deep, it mulled on the palette for a few brief moments, before the mango took over. It was also beautifully constructed like a tepee, with pink edible flowers to give it some finesse. The licorice layer was almost like chocolate bark, except instead of chocolate, it was licorice. A point to note here: I really hate licorice, but I enjoyed its subtlety and how it came together with the chocolate and the mango. The mango was the most crucial and rewarding element of this particular dessert, and all of a sudden the entire world made sense. Tantalizing, simply pure gold.
The French toast was the real winner, however. Brioche is a personal favorite of mine when it comes to gourmet breads, and having it sweetened further to make the french toast really did it justice. Coupled with the ginger, and the cardamom ice cream, it was a legendary combination. I expected the cardamom ice cream to be much stronger, but was taught a lesson in expectations as the muted flavor really asked questions of the French toast – the star of the show. Being served on a round, black plate meant that the yellows, golds, and creams really shone. We gobbled this one up so fast I had to be preemptive and take a quick picture before it could even be set down on the table properly.
Another thing not on the menu and something that we appreciated prior to paying our bill were various mousses, ranging from chocolate to berries, served in tiny jam jars. They were served with mini sponge-like cakes that we ate up like fortune cookies. This too, like the baby prawns, was on the house. Definitely a good touch before you look at the damage this meal can do to your wallet. We polished all this off with a smooth and robust espresso each, lest we enter a collective food coma before we’d even exited the establishment.
Don’t take the damage on the wallet part too seriously here, though. Kokotxa is cheap when you compare it to other Michelin restaurants. Their market menu is absolutely cheap for a restaurant of this stature, and their slightly more expensive tasting menu, too, is peanuts considering its value for money. And when you’re listening to music in the form of food, is it that hard to resist the urge to skimp?
Speaking of music, I cannot begin to tell you how much a Michelin star restaurant imitates an orchestra, and successfully at that. Everything is purposeful, simultaneous, and exudes brilliance. The servers lock eyes for a brief moment before serving anything at all, from water to gazpacho, from breadsticks to lobster. And that does the trick. Everything is served to all patrons at the exact same time, and without missing a beat, the head server explains what and how people should be eating what they’re eating.
A Michelin experience is no small feat. Sure, I would have loved a Wagyu steak, but would that have been something I would have written a full blown essay about? Yes, I would, and I did, but that’s besides the point. A Michelin, in my books, is supposed to wow you, and is supposed to communicate with you in a way that most food cannot. And I think Kokotxa did the trick here. We walked out onto San Sebastián’s streets elated, clinging to every last bit of flavor that we could. One day, we’d try a two star, we promised.